Kaelyn Forde

Carrying that weight: Students protest campus 'rape culture'

Hundreds of students protest sexual violence at Columbia University

Hundreds of people carrying mattresses and holding signs denouncing sexual violence marched through Columbia University’s campus in New York City, demanding action on the “national crisis of sexual violence” in college. The demonstration was just one of 130 held across the country on Wednesday as part of the Carry That Weight day of action, organizers said.

“Come on, PrezBo, be courageous! Rape culture is contagious!” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr chanted into a bullhorn, using a nickname for Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger. Behind Ridolfi-Starr, a crowd of women and men held mattresses with signatures, messages of support and calls to action scrawled across them. A mattress propped against Columbia’s Alma Mater statue bore the demand: “No Red Tape.”

According to the Department of Justice, nearly one in five women experience attempted or completed sexual assault during their college years.

“Mama, mama can’t you see? / What Columbia has done to me / Rape culture is all around / There’s no safety to be found,” protesters sang. But the crowd grew quiet when Ridolfi-Starr said she wanted to share her story for the first time.

“When I was a freshman here at Columbia, I was sexually assaulted by two men at a Columbia fraternity house. I met them at a bar, we went to a party, and they got me so drunk I could barely stand. Then they sexually assaulted me,” Ridolfi-Starr said.

“I carried those experiences alone, in silence, for a year. And it was crushing. I thought maybe tonight, they were doing it to someone else. And they probably were. I needed somebody to tell me, ‘What happened to you was not right, and it was not your fault.’ I needed somebody to ask me what they could do to help me feel safe, but no one did.”

Junior Rosie Hoffman said she received zero support from the university after a man drugged her macaroni and cheese and sexually assaulted her during her first week of college.

“I told my dean and my supervisor that I was assaulted. Instead of compassion, I was met with contempt and skepticism,” Hoffman said. "They didn’t believe me, and refused to acknowledge it — much less take responsibility for it. I wasn’t told how to report it, or that there was an office to report it to.”

Beyond campus walls, fewer than 5 percent of college women who experienced attempted or completed rapes report the crimes to police, according to a 2000 Department of Justice report.

Sexual assault survivor Emma Sulkowicz joined demonstrators Wednesday as part of the Carry That Weight movement she created.
Kaelyn Forde

Ridolfi-Starr said her decision to speak out came after fellow Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz went public about being raped and strangled by a classmate in her dorm room during her sophomore year. Sulkowicz has since publicly criticized the university’s handling of the crime, telling Al Jazeera earlier this year that during a 2013 disciplinary hearing, she was forced to explain to a panel of administrators how anal rape worked.

“To have random administrators being the ones who have to stomach the gory details of rape — they weren’t prepared for this role,” Sulkowicz said in May.

In response to the university’s inaction, Sulkowicz, a visual arts student, created a performance art piece called “Carry That Weight” for her senior thesis. She has vowed to carry her dorm room mattress with her every day until her rapist, a fellow student, is expelled from the university or leaves voluntarily. The movement takes its name from Sulkowicz’s work.

Sulkowicz and Ridolfi-Starr are among the 28 students who filed federal complaints against Columbia and Barnard for alleged violations of educational statutes Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act in April.

“Even though, as time goes on and the weather gets colder, and as fewer and fewer people offer to help me carry my mattress, you are the reason that I have the strength to keep going,” Sulkowicz told the demonstrators as it began to rain.

“It takes six people to make a mattress feel light, but to change the way sexual assault is handled on our campus, it is going to take all of us,” she said.

Sulkowicz then helped lead the march toward the university president’s residence. “No justice, no peace!” demonstrators chanted as they crossed a busy intersection, mattresses balanced on heads. They stacked the mattresses in front of Bollinger’s building, then taped a list of demands to his door.

Carry That Weight organizer Allie Rickard said bringing their message to Bollinger’s doorstep was important.

“We've brought 28 mattresses that represent the 28 students that filed Title IX complaints against Columbia to the doorstep of the president's house — it's imperative that the president and the rest of the administration acknowledge our demands, meet our demands, meet with us and work together on new policy,” Rickard said.

In response to Wednesday’s protest, Columbia University issued the following statement: “We understand that reports about these cases in the media can be deeply distressing, and our hearts go out to any students who feel they have been mistreated.”

“Columbia embraces its responsibility to be a leader in preventing sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct anywhere it may occur, with a special duty to protect the safety and well-being of our own students. Student activism here and around the nation has played an important role in encouraging these efforts.”

Rickard, Ridolfi-Starr and Sulkowicz said the movement and the protests will continue until the university revises its policies and treats survivors of sexual violence with respect.

Among the movement’s demands are freezing the financial aid packages and tuition of survivors of sexual violence who choose to take time off from school, Rickard said. The organizers have also demanded that the accounts of survivors be given weight and listened to, something Ridolfi-Starr finally said she has finally found in Carry That Weight.

“This movement is very powerful to me because these mattresses really symbolize — they're a tangible symbol of what that burden has felt like for me to carry privately, painfully,” Ridolfi-Starr said. “It's an incredible feeling to go from carrying that burden alone and isolated to feeling like there's a national movement standing behind me.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter